One of the Very Important Moments--doubtless there are many--in the life of Ann Carlson came at age 12 while watching the New York City Ballet.
The orchestra began to play. The ballerinas began to move. And then, with a sudden tap tap tap of his baton, the conductor brought everything to a halt. Something was off--probably the tempo. In seconds the dancers were back in their starting positions and the show began again smoothly. But in those few moments, everything had changed.
"Suddenly, I saw them as real people, as having a connection to the people sitting in the audience," Carlson said. An aesthetic foundation was born.
As a "choreographic artist," Carlson not only views dancers as real people, but uses real people as dancers.
"The unusual thing about Ann Carlson is that she rarely works with dancers," said Cristyne Lawson, head of the dance department at CalArts.
That is, of course, an exaggeration. But looking at Carlson's resume, it's an easy conclusion to draw. In 1986, she began the ongoing "Real People" series, which uses the movement inherent to a particular profession as the basis for a work of dance.
Basketball players, nuns, lawyers and fly fishermen have provided Carlson with palettes of motion. Then they perform the final work. Her "Animals" (1986-89) series used a goat, a dog and a kitten--none of them trained.
The works sound high concept--and in a sense, they are--but the meanings that emerge from each piece have won over many a dance critic. The Boston Globe called the "Animals" series "eccentric, surprising and profound."
Reviewing a 1995 performance that featured a range of her works in Arlington, Va., the Washington Post said, "It's as though she is naturally able to get under the skin of a plethora of human stereotypes, without reducing any of her subjects to caricature."
"Doing that work has changed my definitions. My definition of dancer includes anyone," she said, "But it definitely includes a traditional dancer."
This weekend Carlson will perform her 1990 piece, "Sold," which includes seven traditional dancers--the faculty and alumni who make up the CalArts Dance Ensemble. The program, titled "Red, White and Blues," includes a 10-minute excerpt from Martha Graham's 1935 "Panorama." And Lawson will premiere a new dance duet, "Blue Note," inspired by the Kafi Natambu poem of the same title.
"Sold" is part of Carlson's "White" series, which explored issues of identity, perception and privilege in America's dominant culture. Toward the beginning of the 12-minute work, Carlson, dressed in a white wedding gown, starts to auction off the dancers by the pound. It's a cutting commentary about our feelings of ownership toward things that are temporal, like art and love.
The auction also says a lot about the "meat market" treatment of dancers, Carlson said. "The tender that often buys you a position or a job is your body," she said. "It might be the length of your legs . . . or certainly the size of your body."
Carlson herself maybe breaks 5 feet, but that would include her dyed red hair, which tends to stand straight up. Even sitting on the floor, she is in motion. She wears glasses with small frames, through which her eyes dart from her constantly moving hands, to the floor, to a group of passing students.
She grew up in Park Ridge, Ill., and studied dance at the University of Utah and later got a master's degree at the University of Arizona. Beyond her own creations, she has also choreographed "Hydrogen Jukebox," an opera written by Allen Ginsberg and Philip Glass. She has received multiple honors, including a Bessie--the New York Dance and Performance Award--and the $50,000 CalArts/Alpert Award in the Arts, the first given for dance.
Carlson is naturally fast talking. But for the auction sequence of "Sold," she had to learn to speak even faster and spent two weeks in Kansas City, Mo., mastering the patter of cattle auctioneers. These days, she's learning rodeo barrel racing for a group show at Geffen Center at MOCA from March to June.
Carlson, her significant other--video artist Mary Ellen Strom--and their three children recently moved to Irvine from New York while they collaborate on the MOCA show and Strom completes a master's in fine arts at UC Irvine. Carlson boards her quarter horse, Risky, in a nearby stable for frequent practice at rodeo riding.
Fly fishing, auctioning, now barrel racing. With each year it seems that Carlson moves closer and closer to the edges of dance. Would she ever leave dance behind completely?
"Some would say I have--that when I'm on the horse, I've left," Carlson said. But for her, the boundaries of media continue to expand wide enough to embrace even the quarter horse. For her, "the form responds to the idea. That's the important thing--the idea--not the form."
* WHAT: "Red, White and Blues," by the CalArts Dance Ensemble.
* WHERE: Walt Disney Modular Theatre, CalArts, 24700 McBean Parkway, Valencia.
* WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
* HOW MUCH: $10 general admission, $2 for students.
* CALL: (818) 362-2315. Reservations recommended.